Veteran Actor Tony Danza Steps onto Classroom Stage
Years after studying to be a history teacher, actor Tony Danza decided to try his skills in the classroom as a high-school English teacher in Philadelphia. His experiences as a first-year teacher are featured in the A&E series, Teach: Tony Danza. Included: Observations about an urban high school.
Actor Tony Danza has appeared in boxing rings, on television shows, and the Broadway stage. But one of the toughest entrances he ever had to make was into a tenth-grade English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia.
Danza spent the 2009-2010 year teaching English at the school, helping with the football team and the band, and immersing himself in school life. His experiences as a first-year teacher are the subject of the seven-episode A&E series Teach: Tony Danza, currently airing Friday nights at 10 p.m.
Known for his roles in the television shows Who's the Boss? and Taxi, Danza studied to be a history teacher in college, but was a boxer before being drawn to acting. Education remains an interest of his, though, and he is hopeful his willingness to work as a first-year teacher might inspire others to teach or contribute to schools in other ways.
Danza talked with Education World about his reasons for becoming a teacher and what he learned during his return to school.
Education World: Why were you interested in this project?
Tony Danza: Its something that has been on my mind for a while. I went to school to be a teacher, and I'm getting older and thinking about what I want to do, what I haven't done. A friend mentioned this to me, but I wanted to make sure the kids would come first. I started to think about how we could have a greater impact, people would get the real story, as opposed to what they just hear, and see how hard teaching is.
EW: What would you like the public to know about urban schools and students?
Danza: The goal was to give a real look at an urban America high school --what's going on, what its like and show how hard it is to be a great teacher. Maybe inspire some other people my age to try teaching -- we all have high school in common.
Kids don't see models of success. One kid asked me if I were a millionaire. I wasn't comfortable talking about money, but I said I guess I am, but a million is not what it used to be.
These kids were born three years after my last show of note was off the air, and that helped me in a way, because they didn't take me too seriously as a celebrity -- it was not something I had to deal with. One kid said, I think my mother was a fan, and another said, Weren't you on Cheers? Ironically, one of the cable channels put Who's the Boss? back on while I was teaching.
It was the hardest year of my life, but the best year of my life. I got a note from one of my students who said, I decided to take your advice and get out of my comfort zone.
EW: What surprised you most about life in today's classroom?
Danza: First of all, every single kid has an electronic device. I can't imagine having that when I was in school -- I was already distracted.
I was surprised at the neediness of the students -- and the amount of work done by teachers. There are some bad teachers, but I think more of them are discouraged. They have students who are not motivated, they get low pay, and little respect. Teachers have to prepare curriculum and teach self-discipline and be parents. The hardest part is to convince kids you care for them -- you pretty much have to do that to get them to work for you.
I have my regrets about my own level of commitment [to school]. I tell the kids to get smart and take it more seriously, so they have no regrets like I do.
One of the first things a math teacher who had been there 37 years said to me was, Are you here to act like a teacher or to be a teacher? I asked why he kept doing it [teaching], and he said, Maybe this year I'll get it right.
EW: How did this experience affect your view of teachers and education?
Danza: Its very hard; not only do you have to prepare curriculum, you have to find ways to engage students, and teach respect. It's not like it used to be when teachers stood in front of a class and wrote on the board -- you have to learn to teach collaboratively
EW: What advice did you receive from other educators that was most helpful to you?
Danza: I got great advice from one: don't smile until Christmas. I thought, I'm in trouble, Christmas is a long way away, and I thought my smile would help out a lot.
There was a mentor teacher assigned to all first-year teachers, and he saw me writing lesson plans and said they were confusing. He said I should do more with less; the more you have a lesson buttoned down, so each ten-, five-minute period is covered, the better off you are. It's almost like acting the way you have to be prepared. I decided to put the goal on the board every day [to know what I was working toward.]
I did cry on camera -- probably more than I should have -- because I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, and I was frustrated. Then the kids would do something that touched me, and I fell in love with it, fell in love with all of them. I learned never again to take my upbringing for granted -- some kids have no one, and the ones they do have aren't good for them. Not to mention the poverty.
We all have to take responsibility for this [improving the education system]; teachers, parents, students and throwing money at the problem doesn't seem to help.
EW: How connected did you feel to your students and the school?
Danza: I did Oprah last week, and she interviewed some of my kids. One girl said she didn't have a father and she thought of me as a father. Every once in a while, a kid says I made a difference. I wanted to do a whole year of teaching, even after the cameras stopped.
I'm going to be writing a book about this experience called I Would Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year at Northeast High.
EW: So what's next for Mr. Danza?
Danza: Well, I'm working on the book and I want to take another shot at Hollywood. I think I have a few more years of teaching in me, and I have some family commitments.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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